Exclusive Excerpt: Anna Hecker's Music-Filled Novel, When the Beat Drops

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Exclusive Excerpt: Anna Hecker's Music-Filled Novel, <i>When the Beat Drops</i>

A story about a jazz prodigy who dives into the EDM scene and becomes a DJ? Count us in! Anna Hecker’s Young Adult novel, When the Beat Drops, follows an awkward musician who finally steps out of her sister’s shadow during one glorious summer. But when tragedy strikes, the musician’s world is thrown into chaos.

Sky Pony Press will release the novel on May 15th, and it sounds like a must-read:

Seventeen-year-old Mira has always danced to her own beat. A music prodigy in a family of athletes, she’d rather play trumpet than play ball—and with her audition to a prestigious jazz conservatory just around the corner (and her two best friends at music camp without her), she plans to spend the summer focused on jazz and nothing else.

She only goes to the warehouse party in a last-ditch effort to bond with her older sister. Instead, she falls in love with dance music, DJing… and Derek, a gorgeous promoter who thinks he can make her a star. Suddenly, trumpet practice and old friendships are taking a back seat to packed dance floors and sun-soaked music festivals, outsized personalities and endless beats.

But when a devastating tragedy plunges her golden summer into darkness, Mira discovers just how little she knows about her new boyfriend, her old friends and even her own sister. Music brought them together. Will it also tear them apart?

We’re excited to share an exclusive excerpt from the book ahead of its release. Check it out below, and click here to learn more about Hecker’s novel.

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The clock ticks in 4/4 time. It cuts through the scrape and shuffle of students putting away their instruments, dragging us six minutes closer to the end of the school year and one minute closer to the moment I’ve been waiting for.

“Class, we have a very special end-of-the-year treat for you.” Mr. Gillis, the band teacher, pushes his wire-framed glasses up his nose. The shuffle suspends.

“You’re letting us out early?” Jamal Robeson asks from behind his bass drum. Next to him, the percussionists titter.

“Even better.” Mr. Gillis beams at me. “You’re about to witness the world premiere of an original jazz trio written and performed by our very own Mira Alden, with Nicky Soriano on drums and Crow Cutler on bass. Put your hands together for ‘Lou’s New York!’”

All around me, people deflate.

Loser’s New York?” Gabriella Lawson jokes, tossing her stick-straight, shiny auburn hair over one shoulder and sending a gale of laughter through the flutes and clarinets.

“By Sad Trombone?” Jamal adds, and the laughter ripples through the rest of the band.

A memory whirls back to me: grass and dirt in my mouth, my eyes red and hot. Stay cool, I remind myself as I pick my way to the front of the room. It’s what Miles Davis, my personal hero and the best trumpet player who ever lived, would have done. He never let critics get to him. He always played it cool.

On the other side of the room Crow adjusts her fedora and wheels her upright bass around the splayed-out feet of people who refuse to let her by. Her pale skin looks almost translucent under the band-room lights, and a man’s herringbone blazer flaps around her shoulders. Nicky sets his sax on his chair and heads for the drums, his head held as high as it will go on his 5’3” frame. His pristine, preppy outfit is a stark contrast to Crow’s thrift-store duds. His chinos actually swish as he walks.

“Mira, do you have any words to share about your piece?” Mr. Gillis prompts.

Miles Davis never talked on stage. He believed the music should speak for itself. So I don’t tell the class that Lou was my grandfather, who turned me onto jazz when I was just a little girl. That this piece is a tribute to the hours he used to spend on Metro North going into the city to hear his favorite jazz combos, often staying so late he missed the last train home and had to wander Grand Central Station until dawn. That it’s a thank-you for believing me when I said I wanted to play like Miles Davis, for buying me my first trumpet and coming to all my recitals even when his emphysema was so bad he could barely applaud.

That it’s a memorial, because as of September Grandpa Lou isn’t with us anymore. That the man Gabriella Lawson just called a “loser” was my favorite person who ever lived.

I don’t say any of that. I nod at Crow and Nicky, sweat gathering on my palms.

“A-one, a-two, a-one-two-three-four!” Crow counts, slapping her bass.

I raise my trumpet to my lips and feel forty pairs of eyes on me, just waiting for me to give them new material. Please don’t let me fall on my face, I pray. Not again.

Somehow, I find my breath. My fingers seek the valves and as the opening phrase echoes through the bell of my trumpet the band room fades away and we’re in Grandpa Lou’s living room in New Haven, the carpet scratchy against my bare knees as I lean up against his speakers, soaking in the horn. Nicky starts in with the snare, gaining speed like the train chugging into Manhattan. As the sound builds the three of us break into a fast, wild bebop riff and we’re in Harlem in 1944, when Miles Davis first came to New York and spent his days studying at Juilliard and his nights jamming uptown at Minton’s with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie “Bird” Parker.

My notes intertwine with Nicky’s riffs and dart around the reverb from Crow’s bass. We’re weaving with Miles in and out of the clubs on 52nd Street, setting the soundtrack to Greenwich Village as beat poets snap their approval over black coffee and rotgut wine.

Nicky drops out for a moment and I launch into a solo that has the beatniks leaping to their feet and shedding their cool.

“Get it!” Crow hollers, spinning her bass in a full 360 just as I ease back into the refrain. Nicky’s snare slows until we’re sitting with Grandpa Lou in the front row of a tiny jazz club in Harlem, a cigarette in his hand and his smile like a halo, lighting up his whole face. My lungs feel like they’re about to burst by the time I hit the final high note, and I slowly lower my trumpet from my lips as the song’s last vibrations float through the air.

I can practically smell Grandpa Lou’s aftershave. My lips un-pucker into a smile and Nicky gives me a mock salute from the drums. Crow tips her fedora. I wait for applause to crash over me like a wave.

All I get is another tick of the clock. I tumble back to reality and find half the students zoning out, staring into space or checking their phones. Others just look confused-or, worse, unimpressed.

“What even was that?” Gabriella asks in a loud, fake sotto voce.

“Weirdness from a weirdo?” Jamal ventures.

Mr. Gillis brings his hands together in pointed, enthusiastic applause. Some of the students join him half-heartedly, but then the bell clangs and everyone is out of their seat at once, stampeding for the door.

“Don’t forget to practice over the summer!” Mr. Gillis calls to a nearly empty room. As the last student thuds away, he turns to me with a sigh.

“Sorry about that, Mira. I guess your material was a little . . . advanced for them.”

Nicky stands, shaking his head in disgust. “Can those cretins appreciate anything that’s not an arrangement of some crappy pop song?”

I watch Mr. Gillis try and fail to hide a smile. “They might not get it now,” he says diplomatically. “Maybe someday they will.”

“They would have gotten it at Windham.” The words slip from my mouth before I can stop them. So much for keeping my cool.

Mr. Gillis’s smile disappears. “I’m sorry about that, Mira,” he says. “I tried to pull strings for you. I really did.”

“I know,” I say. “Thanks anyway.”

I turn away from him and clean my trumpet’s spit valve so he can’t read the bitterness in my eyes. I’m more than sorry about missing all eight weeks of Windham Music Camp this summer: I’m furious. Furious that my parents didn’t realize we couldn’t afford it before the scholarship application deadline passed. Furious that I emptied my savings account and spent the last two months hosting bake sales only to come up short. Even a tiny bit furious at Crow and Nicky because they still get to go, even though they helped with the bake sales and none of this is their fault.

“It’s such crap.” Nicky follows Mr. Gillis around the room, breaking down music stands with small, precise movements. “All those summers gushing about your talent, and they can’t even scrounge up a little extra scholarship money? Go romance a rich donor or something?”

“Especially thisost.”

Even though Crow’s just repeating everything I’ve said for months, her words tie my stomach in a knot. The three of us are applying early admission to the world-renowned Fulton Jazz Conservatory in Harlem: the only college I have any interest in attending. There’s a two-part audition process, and our first is in mid-August, so people can fly in without having to miss school. Even with the summer yawning in front of me like a stale, empty trap, it doesn’t feel like enough time.

“Oh, I’ll still practice.” My voice sounds scorched. “Probably even more than you guys. It’s not like I have anything else to do this summer.”

“You three will nail it.” Mr. Gillis assures us. “By the time I see you in September, Fulton will be begging you to go there.”

I snap my trumpet case shut. “I hope you’re right,” I say quietly. I wait for Crow and Nicky to finish packing up their instruments, already bracing myself for the onslaught of stupidity beyond the band room doors.

“Have a good summer!” Mr. Gillis calls after us.

“I’ll try,” I say, even though I’m pretty convinced that no summer spent folding towels at my parents’ moldy, failing gym could possibly be good. “You too.”

Out in the hallway the cacophony swallows us, a thousand students cleaning out their lockers. A cluster of guys from the JV basketball team uses one of the trash bins as target practice; a brown-skinned banana flies by, missing my ear by millimeters.

“Watch it!” I call, ducking.

Brian D’Angelo, second-string forward, tuts his tongue. “Close call there, Sad Trombone. Hate to see you faceplant on that.”

A bitter bubble of shame bursts in my stomach as the memory floods back, stronger this time. Crisp fall air biting at my nose as I take my first-ever marching band solo at the homecoming game. My toe hitting a divot in the football field and notes skidding sideways from my trumpet, crowds of blurred halftime faces jeering as I fly face-forward into dirt and grass. The taste of tears as Nicky helps me to my feet, the red eyes and heaving shoulders and mess of snot as I begin ugly-crying in front of a thousand jeering spectators. The nickname that’s followed me ever since.

Next to Brian D’Angelo, Brad Eaton raises a pretend trombone to his lips. “Whomp-whomp-whaaaaaa.”

I stare straight ahead and keep walking, reminding myself to play it cool. The Monday after the Halftime Incident I began channeling Miles Davis, keeping my head high and my face blank as cries of “Sad Trombone!” dogged me through the halls. It still hurts, even after three years. But I’ll be damned if I ever burst into tears in front of a crowd again.

Behind me, I feel Nicky stop. “For the millionth time, you cretins, she plays the trumpet,” he says in his withering, nasal drawl.

Brad pretends to look shocked. “Oh, what’re you gonna do about it? Beat me up with your tiny little gay hands?” The whole hallway bursts out laughing.

Nicky rolls his eyes. “You wish I’d touch you with my tiny little gay hands,” he shoots back. “Call me when you come out of the closet, ‘kay sweet pea?” He holds an imaginary phone to his ear and blows Brad a kiss.

“Ew.” Brad cowers back, the smile wiped from his lips. “Gross.”

Now it’s our turn to laugh as we link arms and continue down the hall.

“Jesus.” Nicky shakes his head. “I can’t wait to never have to come back here again.”

“Just one more year, kiddos.” Crow’s voice is pure steel. “And then we’ll be in Manhattan, jamming with the real cool cats, and we won’t even remember these losers existed.”

“If we get in,” I remind them.

“Of course we’ll get in.” Nicky lays a comforting hand on my arm.

“How can they resist us?” Crow adds, and I force a smile. Our collective plan for the future has always been so clear, hatched after the Halftime Incident and polished until it was as smooth and solid as a marble statue. The three of us together at Fulton, studying jazz with the greats. The off-campus loft we’ll share; all-night jam sessions fueled by black coffee and Chinese takeout. All we have to do is get through the next year of high school . . . and get in.

We pause at a junction in the hall. Crow and Nicky’s lockers are to the left, mine to the right.

“So I’ll see you guys tomorrow?” I ask. “Windham road trip?”

“You’re sure you want to drive us?” Nicky’s voice is gentle.

“My mom said she’d do it if you change your mind,” Crow pipes in.

“I’ll do it,” I say, even though the words feel like swallowing acid. “I want to see everyone.”

“You mean you want to see Peter,” Crow taunts.

“Naked,” Nicky agrees.

“That is classified information,” I inform them. Even though it’s true, I do kind of want to see Peter Singh naked. We almost got that far last summer, but we both chickened out at the last minute.

This summer was going to be different. Was.

“Anyway,” I say, too briskly. “I have to get to work. See you guys tomorrow.”

Crow gives me a quick hug while Nicky stands on tiptoe to air-kiss my cheek. Then they turn and walk away, Crow loping behind her bass and Nicky hustling to keep up, his saxophone case swinging from his hand. I turn and head to Locker 1279, which is easy to spot because someone scratched “Sad Trombone” into the orange paint job. For a while I tried to cover it up with a picture of Miles Davis-playing the trumpet, to make a point-but it kept getting torn down and finally I gave up. Nobody’s going to call me Sad Trombone in Manhattan. People there have better things to do.

I spin my combination and start sorting through ripped-out notebook pages, old tests, and sheet music. Only the music is worth keeping. I shove everything else in the nearest trash, and I’m almost out the door when a familiar face stops me. She’s grinning from a newspaper photo inside one of the trophy cases, one arm around her co-captain and the other raising a massive trophy. The trophy itself stands next to the photo, gleaming dull gold. Connecticut State Soccer Champions, it reads. All-State MVP, Brittany Alden.

Even though the display has been up since last spring, I slow down and watch my reflection float over Britt’s photo. Despite the fact that we have the same light-brown skin, springy chestnut-colored curls, and dark eyes flecked with gold, people have trouble believing we’re sisters. Britt has an easy smile, a million friends, and a soccer scholarship. I have giant feet and a trumpet.

I haven’t seen her since she left for college in September: plane tickets from LA to Connecticut were too expensive for Christmas, and lately she’s been so busy with finals she hasn’t even been texting. But she’s coming home tonight, and knowing she’ll be here makes missing camp just a little easier to bear. I can’t help thinking that maybe this will be the summer we stop being Britt the Soccer Star and Mira the Weird Jazz Nerd and can just be us again, like we were before high school.

I may not be going to camp, but maybe this will be the summer I finally get my sister back.

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Sky Pony Press will release When the Beat Drops on May 15th.

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